How to help with disaster relief

See our 5 tips to make helping people in need a part of your giving plan.

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Key takeaways

  • For any natural disaster or crisis, keep in mind that recovery is a process that takes years. Continuing support through the rebuilding phases can be just as important as giving the moment disaster strikes.
  • When choosing a nonprofit organization to support, consider the organization’s priorities, partnerships, size, and scale.
  • Thoroughly research the organizations you plan to support. Remember, there can be a marked difference between a worthy cause and a worthy charity.

Disasters come in all shapes and sizes, and so do relief efforts. There has not been a time in recent history where crises have not overlapped worldwide. In any given stretch of time, there will be tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, famine, and even global pandemics and refugee surges, just to name a few of the most recent events around the globe.

The needs can be overwhelming and that makes it ever so important to maximize the impact and efficiency of your charitable donations.

“We see that disasters are becoming more frequent and more severe,” says Elaine Martyn, senior vice president of Fidelity Charitable’s Private Donor Group. “That puts added pressure on the organizations responding and means donor support is needed now more than ever—particularly ongoing support that can help organizations respond quickly when disasters strike.”

Here are a few things to know about supporting disaster relief organizations, and a few ways you can provide assistance.

1. When to donate

Nonprofit organizations providing relief efforts for a natural disaster typically receive a high volume of donations in the immediate aftermath of the event. However, offering continued support through the later phases of stabilization and rebuilding is just as vital but often overlooked, and can have even greater importance.

The 4 recognized phases of disaster relief are shown in the chart below:

“Following a disaster, nonprofits are on the ground supporting victims in a number of ways from providing medical relief to food, water, and shelter. But work continues on after these most immediate needs are met, often for years,” adds Martyn.

2. How to donate

Think first about which services you want to support. Many people forget that giving to disaster relief presents an opportunity to make your contribution part of your larger charitable giving strategy. One significant way to give is to direct your donation to a specific area (food, shelter, child welfare, animal welfare, etc.) that is personally important to you.

Below is a list of services you could support, along with a graphic that indicates the phase of the relief process during which support of this category is most important.

Also, if much of your giving is made through a religious lens, remember that faith-based charitable organizations are often at the forefront of a local response. For additional information about faith-based giving, contact your particular house of worship or its relief agency to learn more about its role in the rebuilding of communities.

3. How to select charities

When choosing a nonprofit organization, consider the organization’s priorities, partnerships, size, and scale:

  • Does it have a strong and established record of excellence in areas important to you?
  • Has it worked in disaster-related situations before, and in the relevant geographical area?
  • Does it have sufficient accounting and fiduciary oversight to manage larger-than-normal contributions?
  • Does it have a track record and commitment to working with other nonprofit organizations, as well as government agencies, to coordinate and deliver vital services?

4. How to help

Fidelity Charitable regularly compiles guidance to help donors identify credible organizations providing relief services in the aftermath of major disasters. These organizations are highlighted because they have existing operations in a particular region, the ability to incorporate a large influx of donations, and a strong, established record in disaster relief services.

To be prepared to assist during future events, consider making disaster relief a component of your overall charitable giving plan. You may choose, for instance, to earmark a certain percentage of your yearly giving to disaster relief. Think ahead of time which phases and services you might want to support should an event happen. If there are no disaster events in a given year, you might consider donating those dollars to Phase 4 efforts that include emergency risk reduction and prevention.

5. Be aware of possible fraud

In the aftermath of some acute natural disasters like hurricanes, you may see news stories about price gouging, looting, and other illicit activities. Sadly, the nonprofit sector is not immune to fraudulent activity.

It’s always a good idea to practice some due diligence (and even some healthy skepticism at times) before committing your funds to a particular organization. The nonprofits that see more funding aren't just doing impressive work; they’re also transparent about how they're doing it. Just because someone asks you to support a worthy effort, it doesn't mean you can't take some time to consider it—just like you would if someone was selling you an investment or a new product.

Not every charity addressing a cause is equally equipped. GuideStar, Charity Navigator, the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance, and GiveWell all provide free financial and programmatic information to donors about specific nonprofits. Charity Navigator and GiveWell also assign ratings to the nonprofits, but keep in mind that many nonprofits with a higher overhead may also provide services more effectively. You can also check the Center for High Impact Philanthropy (CHIP) for a wealth of information about how donors can maximize the impact of their giving.

You can visit Fidelity Charitable for more resources about working with disaster relief organizations. You can also learn more from the IRS about how smart charitable tax strategies can enable you to give more to causes you care about, including disaster relief.

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